"The truth has no temperature," says Malkina, the psychopath played by Cameron Diaz when Javier Bardem's character, Reiner, remarks that she is cold. This is after she'd told him that she doesn't miss people who are dead because missing something implies the possibility that the thing can return. She doesn't understand the temperature comes from human attachment. In Ridley Scott's brilliant new film, The Counsellor, we see the sort of world a socially powerful psychopath can create. To say that the film is about a fundamental amorality in the world is tempting but not quite adequate. It's a movie about grief, grief made all the worse by knowing how things could have worked out.
Michael Fassbender plays the unnamed Counsellor, an American lawyer who finds himself in a financial crisis. He's always stood on a high moral ground before as Reiner, a friend with contacts in the world of Mexican drug cartels, remarks greed had never motivated the Counsellor before.
Reiner also tells the Counsellor that moral dilemmas in men are attractive to women. He opines that this is because women are at heart amoral themselves. Of course, his opinion is influenced by the fact that he's in a relationship with a psychopath but he exhibits a misogyny that predates his acquaintance with Malkina. When the Counsellor asks Reiner if he can interpret any of the complex graphs and charts on the computer screens Malkina uses, Reiner admits they are beyond his understanding--he tells the Counsellor he likes smart women but it's, "getting to be an expensive habit." He's not a smart man and the confused nervousness in his voice hints that he's just beginning to realise how much he's been betrayed by his own sexism.
The movie opens with the Counsellor in bed, under a white sheet with a smiling Penelope Cruz as his wife, Laura. The two have sex and it's so lovingly shot and performed. These two are in love and their vulnerability and openness with each other is sexy and beautiful. As the Counsellor remarks, life is in bed with her, everything else is just waiting.
Scott's direction, Cormac McCarthy's screenplay, and the performers do a remarkable job of conveying the innocence and the love in their very sexual relationship.
Reiner and Malkina's relationship stands as a contrast. Reiner describes an incident to the Counsellor he says he's tried to forget--Malkina having sex with his car.
It was "too gynaecological to be sexy," he says as he describes her vagina on his windscreen like "one of those bottom feeding fish." Honestly, the scene actually is incredibly sexy but it's significant Reiner doesn't think so--he's intimidated by a woman's sexuality. He describes the scene to the Counsellor and doesn't know why the Counsellor doesn't understand his horror.
Malkina and Laura have a scene together at a spa where Malkina is amused by Laura's love for the Councillor and her devout Catholicism. Malkina goes to a confessional after the conversation and smugly confirms for herself the priest's prejudice and the insubstantiality of his faith because he refuses to take her confession when he learns she's not Catholic. "It would be pointless," he says, again confirming for Malkina that morality is bullshit.
There's the slim framework of a thriller in this film but it's not really a thriller as so many critics had wrong-headedly presumed. It is a film noir of a very classic breed, a kind more grim than the sorts of movies that are often labelled noir nowadays.
The Counsellor makes a choice when he decides to go in with the Mexican drug cartels. After that, fate "puts the finger him" as Tom Neal says in the 1945 noir Detour.
Brad Pitt plays Westray, a humbler, American drug dealer who scoffs at Reiner's decadent lifestyle. He explains to the Counsellor that the beheadings he hears about perpetrated by the cartels don't come from anger, they're just business. He tells the Counsellor the one they hate is him, the Counsellor. Perhaps this is why we never learn the Counsellor's name--because, as he discovers, he's trapped in this persona of the rich, entitled American.
We don't see much of the big decision makers in the cartels who inflict so much horror and so they too have a broad, almost mystical quality, like a force of nature. Malkina is high on the food chain and we have an idea she's at least partially responsible for what happens but we also sense there's a larger machine of resentment and sadism she's only a part of.
The sex and the violence are presented in this film as the tangible results of malleable things created in the mind.
There's a beautiful and horrible scene near the end where a Mexican lawyer with contacts in the cartel explains to the Counsellor that there are no choices left and that what the Counsellor has to now is accept that one reality is gone and another reality is asserting itself. This film conveys remarkably the sense of terrible, inescapable grief.